On this day in history : 4th July 1840 – The Cunard Shipping Line begins its first Atlantic crossing, when Paddle Steamer Britannia departs Liverpool, bound for Boston, USA….

RMS Britannia – Public domain

Britannia was built by Robert Duncan & Co, Glasgow, for the British & Northern American Royal Mail Steam Packet Co – which was to become the Cunard Line not long after…. She was launched on the 5th of February 1840….

At 1150 tonnes and 270ft long, nearly a quarter of the length of the wooden paddle steamer was taken up by her engines, which were designed by Robert Napier of Glasgow…. She could travel at an average speed of 8.5 knots per hour and consumed some 38 tons of coal per day….

The journey to Boston took 2 weeks, after departing Liverpool on the 4th of July she arrived on the 19th…. She was contracted to carry mail between England and America but was also designed as a troop ship should the need arise…. She had been built strong enough to carry an armament of guns for her own protection and to protect other merchant ships…. She was followed into service by her three sister ships….

Britannia took part in the first transatlantic race between British and American steamships…. In 1847 she competed against the newer and more powerful American steamer ‘Washington’…. Both ships departed New York on the same day, Britannia bound for Liverpool and Washington for Southampton…. Britannia arrived at her destination two days ahead of Washington reaching Southampton….

RMS Britannia – Public domain

The steamships were soon competing with conventional sailing ships – and not just for cargo, they also carried passengers…. In January 1842 Charles Dickens and his wife sailed onboard Britannia to Nova Scotia, Halifax – and he kept a diary of the voyage…. Provisions would have been made wherever possible for fresh food supplies onboard ship…. Britannia, for example, carried poultry in coops on her deck for eggs and meat and there was even a ship’s cow for daily milk….

Britannia served with Cunard for nine years before being sold to the North German Federation, to be converted into a warship…. She was renamed ‘Barbarossa’….

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